A FRESH LOOK AT ENGLISH FUNDAMENTALS

Greek mythology tells of a king named Sisyphus, punished by Zeus for an act of deceit. In the story, Sisyphus is eternally tasked to roll an enormous boulder up a steep hill, only to watch helplessly as the boulder inevitably rolls down when it reaches the top. 

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “Sisyphean” as “denoting a task that can never be completed”. A Sisyphean task – this is what I think of when friends and family ask me for quick and easy ways to improve their English.

To me, learning is a life-long process, and few can ensure learning that is both immediate and authentic. I can, of course, do my best to help. 

STICK TO THE BASICS AND GO WIDE

How many of us here have heard that to get better at a language, we have to listen, read, write, and speak? Although these so-called four ‘language skills’ seem simple in theory, many people either under- or overthink them, leading to much spinning of their wheels.

The fact is that neither discounting the practice of fundamental usage skills, nor obsessing over the kind of material to consume, is beneficial towards the learner. All listening, reading, writing, and speaking will be helpful; in fact, the more diverse the content you consume, the better.  

DEVELOP DIVERSITY BY READING ANYTHING KNOWLEDGEABLE 

There is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ type of thing to read! When I was younger, literature reigned king, and so I was told to only read books. Today, primary school students take Media Studies, which is “designed to train students to be media literate individuals” (SEAB, 2017).

Indeed, improving our English means being able to understand any text, so that we can critically think about its content or communicate effectively with its author. 

To borrow the words of linguist Wilhem von Humboldt: language is the ‘infinite use of finite means’. English, like any other language, does not draw from a fixed pool of knowledge.

Outside the classroom – which is to say, in the grander scheme of things – English is used in multifarious ways. Reading (and listening, speaking, and writing) diversely is a surefire way to improve without even feeling like you’re trying. It’s like ‘learning by osmosis’!

EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN FOR BETTER RECALL AND MEMORY

I may be biased as a Linguistics major, but delving into the history of language and words is one of my favourite ways to improve. Have you ever looked at a list of irregular verbs and wondered why English grammar was so hard to master?

Have you ever looked at an idiom and questioned how exactly their meaning could differ so drastically from its literal one? Well, your answers lie in history – how English has changed over time. 

This video, for example, explains why irregular verbs even exist:

By looking up how a particularly difficult-to-remember grammar or vocabulary point has evolved over time to be the way it currently is, you equip yourself with a mnemonic device that will concretise your memory further. 

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About The Author

Miss Fiona Tan is a Teacher Associate at Creative Campus. As a Hwa Chong Institution and NUS alumna, she is particularly familiar with what it takes to excel in demanding exam conditions.